How to Teach Gerunds and Infinitives to ESL Students Without Confusing Them

Throughout my years of teaching ESL, I have seen many students struggle with gerunds.

As teachers, we must clearly define the gerunds and infinitives, provide simple examples for the students to see and correct the confusion between the two grammatical terms.

It’s not that easy, so let’s talk a little bit about how to do exactly that!


What’s a Gerund?

A gerund is a verb ending in –ing that is used as a noun, either as a subject, object or complement.

This definition may seem straightforward to those of us who are native English speakers with an understanding of grammar. It’s not as clear to everyone else.

ESL students need to understand the basic idea that a gerund is an action being used as a thing or idea. When they see a gerund as an activity (a non-physical object), they begin to see the difference between the word as a verb and a noun.


Reading helps students learn English. (Gerund as a subject.)

He enjoys reading for English class. (Gerund as an object.)

Her hobbies include reading. (Gerund as a complement.)

What’s an Infinitive?

An infinitive is a verb preceded by “to” that is used as a subject, object or complement of a sentence.

Again, this is a straightforward definition for those of us with an understanding of grammar, but you can probably already see the potential for confusion in the classroom.


To travel is exciting. (Infinitive as a subject.)

Henry wants to study English. (Infinitive as an object.)

He wants a better job to earn more money. (Infinitive as a complement.)

When Do Students Get Confused?

When introduced to this definition for an infinitive, ESL students get confused. They now have two forms of a verb that serve the same purpose in a sentence.

It’s easier to explain to an ESL class that gerunds sound more natural than infinitives when used as subjects or complements of a sentence. This explanation will get students to only use gerunds as subjects and complements, but it will decrease the number of mistakes and awkward sentences. Show students sentences that sound clearer with the gerund as opposed to the infinitive.

When it comes to objects of sentences, teachers must review verbs that are followed by gerunds — such as keep and dislike — and those that are followed by infinitives — such as need and want — as well as those that are interchangeable.

Now, we’re going to explore some effective in-class exercises that will make these distinctions clearer than ever for your students.

Showing when gerunds and infinitives are interchangeable

Students will have a difficult time remembering which verbs are followed by a gerund and which are followed by an infinitive. It’s especially important for lower-level students to have a list of such verbs.

However, just reading through a list won’t help students remember the verbs. It’s more effective to have the students write their own lists. The physical practice of writing will reinforce the lesson.

The teacher can write a list of verbs on the board and have students try to put them in categories for either gerunds or infinitives. Alternatively, the teacher can hand out a list of common verbs for students to create their own categories. Take this opportunity to include verbs that are most common for the students’ level. With more advanced students, you can include more academic vocabulary for them to use in essays.

When the students see the instances in which a gerund or infinitive is the only option, they will be better prepared to use one or the other.

One exercise that can be used for this is to leave a blank after a verb in a sentence and ask students whether a gerund or infinitive would be appropriate. This will help students understand which verbs precede the gerund, infinitive or both. This exercise can also be used as a warm up to review the lesson in subsequent classes.

Introduce gerunds with the progressive tense

Part of the confusion for ESL students is that the –ing form of the verb implies the progressive tense. Students have a difficult time recognizing the difference between the verb tense and the gerund. Some teachers neglect to include a review of the progressive tense when introducing gerunds in class. Students need to review the verb tense to better understand gerunds.

Students need to see the placement of the words in a sentence to grasp the concept of gerunds and progressive tense verbs. After reviewing the progressive verb tense, provide the class with example sentences that use both the verb tense and gerunds. Point out where the gerund is and where the verb is.

Example: Larry was planning on hiking yesterday.

In this example, students should be able to identify the verb, but may have more difficulty with the gerund. The teacher should emphasize the preposition that precedes the gerund.

Have students identify gerunds, infinitives and progressive tense

To reinforce the differences between the gerunds, infinitives and progressive verb tenses, teachers need to provide an opportunity for students to identify each in sentences. For more advanced levels of ESL, this should be a simple, brief exercise that can be written on the board with the entire class participating. With lower levels, it’s better to have a handout with at least 10 example sentences. Every student can work on their own to start, and then you’ll come together to review answers as a class.

The first few sentences should only contain a gerund, infinitive or progressive tense verb. This should be the case for almost all example sentences for lower-level students. For other levels, you can challenge the students by including sentences that contain all three. If you want to use videos for these lessons, FluentU’s wide variety of video content geared specifivally towards language learners is a perfect resource.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

Have students correct errors in sentences

If students are able to identify the gerund, infinitive and progressive tense in a sentence, they should also be able to identify and correct mistakes. The teacher can write a few example sentences on the board or provide worksheets in which these grammar points are used incorrectly.

Example: Lisa walking to the store to buying some groceries.

Students should identify two mistakes in this sentence: one involving the progressive tense of the verb and the other involving what should be an infinitive. The majority of your examples in class should focus on the gerund and/or infinitive.

This exercise will reinforce the correct sentence structure and help you identify which students understand the grammar and which need more help.

Have students write sentences using gerunds and infinitives

After students have shown that they can identify the gerund, infinitive, progressive tense and related mistakes, have them write their own sentences. Provide a few verbs and tell the students to use each one as an infinitive or gerund in different ways (i.e. a gerund as a subject, an infinitive as a complement, etc.).

While students are writing their sentences, the teacher can go around the class and check the work to see where there may be problems or confusion. After students have completed the exercise, the teacher can ask for volunteers to write sentences on the board for the class to review and, in some cases, correct. Depending on time constraints, the teacher can collect the exercise to check student progress.

Utilize this great online resource

One of the best resources for students to practice gerunds and infinitives is This site has exercises that can be graded online as well as thorough explanations. Teachers can tell students to use this resource on their own or use it in place of worksheets in class, assuming the classroom is equipped with computers.

Armed with the proper explanations and exercises, teachers can make lessons about gerunds and infinitives less confusing for ESL students. As the students progress through the years, these lessons will serve as reminders of how they can perfect their English writing and speech.

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